Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Oshkosh Saloons of 1902: The Opera Buffet

Opera Buffet, Opera House Square.
William Bedward, Proprietor.

William Bedward was born in Wales in 1852. He was in his early 20s when he came to Oshkosh and found work as a railroad brakeman. In 1899, or thereabouts, he left that and took over a posh, little saloon that was just a short stroll from the famous Athearn Hotel. Here’s the look of Bedward’s place in 1902.

The Opera Buffet; page 126 Oshkosh Up to Date, 1902.

Check out that U.S. flag with just 45 stars. Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii had yet to become states. More importantly, look to the lower right portion of the picture. You can see the corner of a table and part of a serving tray. Bedward was a proponent of what was called the saloon lunch. That's the start of his “buffet” there. 

At the turn of the century, the saloon lunch was a feature of many Oshkosh bars. Saloon keepers would put up a free buffet, starting at 10 or 11 in the morning, in hopes of luring in folks for a bout of day drinking. This wasn't just pretzels and popcorn. You could make a meal out of this. They’d serve things like roast beef, ham, turkey, venison, limburger cheese, oysters, soup...

The customers loved it. The saloon keepers came to hate it. They croaked about the expense of providing all that free food. But none who offered it dared be the first to quit. At one point, the saloonists even attempted to impose a collective ban on the free saloon lunch in Oshkosh. When word of that got out, the Daily Northwestern reported that "the retailers of wet goods have been pelted by a perfect hailstorm of abuse." The free lunch gradually dwindled away and died entirely in 1920 with the arrival of Prohibition.

Bedward's bar perished just like those free lunches. Opera House Square is now devoid of saloons. It once teemed with them. Here's a photo taken outside the Opera Buffet, circa 1913. The red arrow indicates the site of Bedward's old stand.

The Crawl Continues...
I’ll have the next stop on the 1902 Saloon Crawl posted later this week. 
To return to the start of the crawl, click here.
For links to all of the stops on the crawl that are currently available, click here.

If you’re curious about the “saloon lunch” I’ll be writing more about it in the not-too-distant future. If you can’t wait, check out the December 5, 1898 edition of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern. There’s a fun story in there about it. You can get your hands on that via the Oshkosh Public Library.

If you’re curious about Oshkosh’s famous Aethern Hotel, here’s a brief primer.

Bedward’s saloon was part of a cluster of businesses located in Opera House Square. That little, and now grass filled, plot of land has an interesting history. Michael McArthur of the Oshkosh Public Library explored that history in one of his recent Librarian Learns videos. You can see that here

Oshkosh Up to Date is a book from 1902 that forms the basis for this series of saloon stories. For some background on Oshkosh Up to Dateclick here. To see a digitized version of Oshkosh Up to Dateclick here.

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